The importance of fact-checking
“Fact checking is as old as journalism,” says veteran journalist Ellen Tordesillas.
During the Marshall McLuhan Forum held at the University of the Philippines Baguio on March 30, Tordesillas said the era of social media has made fact-checking and verification a necessity.
But what is fact-checking? Is verification and fact-checking the same thing?
Craig Silverman, editor of the “Handbook on Verification”, said the two terms are often used interchangeably, sometimes causing confusion, but there are key differences. They share DNA in the sense that each is about confirming or debunking information.
Fact-checking is a specific application of verification in the world of journalism.
Verification is a fundamental practice that enables fact checking.
According to Silverman, fact-checking as a concept and job title took hold in journalism in New York in the 1920s with TIME magazine pioneering it. The magazine was at the time a young publication, and its founders decided they needed a group of staffers to ensure everything gathered by the reporters was accurate.
TIME co-founder Edward Kennedy explained the job of the fact-checker was to identify and then confirm or refute every verifiable fact in a magazine article. Fact-checkers have occasionally been hired by book publishers or authors to vet their material, but it remained largely a job at large American magazines.
On the other hand, verification is the editorial technique used by journalists – including fact-checkers – to verify the accuracy of a statement, according to Bill Adair, the founder of PolitiFact, a fact-checking website. You can’t be a fact checker without practicing verification. Verification is a discipline that lies at the heart of journalism, and that is increasingly being practiced and applied by other professions.
The evolution of fact-checking
I have been teaching journalism for the past 20 years and spent five years of those in active journalism practice as an editor of Midland Courier. I have seen how the practice of fact-checking has evolved from simple checks of the 5Ws (who, what, when, where, why) and 1H (how) to the more complex terms, processes, and technology we associate with the verification of online sources nowadays.
In my first year as copy editor in Midland Courier, the song “What a wonderful world” was playing and two of our bosses said Neil Armstrong sang that. I thought that didn’t sound right, I had to respectfully correct them and they laughed saying oh yeah you’re right, it is Louis Armstrong. This was way before we could easily Google facts on our smartphones. When you don’t have encyclopedic sources at the tip of your fingers, you have to rely on your memory and you better be right.
One time, we also received a letter to the editor coming from a retired Department of Environment and Natural Resources official saying we got the scientific name of the wild sunflower, our common marapait, all wrong. This all points at one thing: We had to fact check to spare us the embarrassment of publishing something wrong. Because people trust news outfits, you cannot be a media entity and be a peddler of false information or wrong facts – that is simply wrong, inherently wrong.
Today the verification process goes beyond just making sure the facts are right. Fact-checking is now most often associated with debunking “fake news” or false information. The term “fake news” is a misnomer. The fact that it is news means it should be truthful. News that is fake isn’t news at all, it is just false information.
Dr. Claire Wardle of First Draft, a United States-based non-profit coalition which provides resources on verification used to train journalists all over the world, said we live in an age of information disorder.
She added we may be able to access information we need with just a click or a swipe but our information ecosystem has been polluted with misleading and false content. She says the term ‘‘fake news” doesn’t begin to cover all of these. Most of the content we now see isn’t even fake; it’s often genuine, used out of context and weaponized by people who know that falsehoods based on a kernel of truth are more likely to be believed and shared. And most of this can’t be described as “news.” It’s good old-fashioned rumors, it’s memes, it’s manipulated videos, hyper-targeted “dark ads”, and old photos re-shared as new.
She added the failure of the term “fake news” to capture our new reality is one reason not to use it. The other, more powerful reason is because of the way it has been used by politicians around the world to discredit and attack professional journalism like how the former President Rodrigo Duterte branded online news website Rappler as a peddler of fake news.
The process of verification
Steve Buttry, author of “Verification Fundamentals: Rules to live by”, says the need for verification starts with the simple fact that many of our information sources are wrong. They may be lying maliciously or innocently passing along misinformation. They may have faulty memories or lack context or understanding.
Buttry added that verification employs a mix of three factors: A person’s resourcefulness, persistence, skepticism and skill; Sources’ knowledge, reliability and honesty, and the number, variety, and reliability of sources you can find and persuade to talk; and documentation.
He said technology has changed how we apply all three factors: The 24/7 news cycle and rise of social media and user-generated content require us to gather and report as events unfold, making swift decisions about whether information has been sufficiently verified; digital tools give us new ways to find and reach sources; databases and ubiquitous cell phones with cameras give us massive amounts of documentation to seek and assess. Successful verification results from effective use of technology, as well as from commitment to timeless standards of accuracy.
First Draft, meanwhile, mentions five pillars of verification which everyone, not just journalists, should consider when faced with information that reaches you online:
Provenance: Are you looking at the original account, article, or piece of content?
Source: Who created the account or article, or captured the original piece of content?
Date: When was it created?
Location: Where was the account established, website created or piece of content captured?
Motivation: Why was the account established, website created or the piece of content captured?
Of the five, the most important is Provenance because you want to make sure that the source has the credibility to release such information or state such facts.
Beyond committing mistakes
Journalism is a process of verification. Only those who can vet the information that they bring out “as the most accurate information there is” can have the right to call themselves journalists. The core reason is, we do not want to commit mistakes. Mistakes that are not addressed are often costly to the publication, the writer, the editor, and the rest of management. You can lose your credibility. Mistakes of this level can even include criminal violations.
There is a law that can punish the spreading of false information, that of Article 154 of the Revised Penal Code or the Unlawful use of means of publication and unlawful utterances.
Paragraph 1 of the law punishes any person who by means of printing, lithography, or any other means of publication shall publish or cause to be published as news any false news which may endanger the public order, or cause damage to the interest or credit of the state. It may be an old law passed on Dec. 8, 1930 but it is still applicable although there have been no cases filed in recent years.
For a limited time during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the Republic Act 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act also aimed to punish spreaders of false information.
Section 6(f) states “Individuals or groups creating, perpetrating, or spreading false information regarding Covid-19 crisis on social media and other platforms, such information having no valid or beneficial effect on the population, and are clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion; and those participating in cyber incidents that make use or take advantage of the current crisis situation to prey on the public through scams, phishing, fraudulent emails, or other similar acts.”
False information regarding individuals, whose reputations have been maligned, may also be covered by laws on libel.
Fact-checking is everybody’s role
Nobel Peace prize laureate Maria Ressa in her book launch at the University of the Cordilleras on March 6, said that as early as 2018, studies have shown that lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and farther than facts. She said the battle for facts is not the role of journalists alone, it must take multi-level, multi-sectoral, collective action.
Hence, verification is no longer limited to the field of journalism, it is increasingly being practiced and applied by other professions. Silverman said verification has taken on new urgency for people such as human rights workers and law enforcement, thanks to the rise of social media and user-generated content. That abundance of content, from disparate sources spread all over the world, makes the application of verification more essential than ever before. Social media content is also increasingly important in humanitarian, legal, public safety, and human rights work.
Tordesillas says: “Each one of us can be a fact checker but we have to value truthfulness. When people say everyone lies so it’s okay to lie, then the moral compass is lost.” Ressa captures the essence of fact-checking in these meaningful words: “Without facts you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without all three, there is no democracy. We hold the line for facts, because it means standing for truth. And standing for truth is a stance for democracy, the very freedom we still enjoy.”